JOHN HOOD COLUMN: Universities should cultivate civic leaders

RALEIGH — Most students and their families invest time, effort, and resources into higher education for vocational reasons. They expect the knowledge, skills, and relationships acquired at a college or university will lead to good jobs — which will, in turn, generate income for graduates to support themselves and their families as well as the satisfaction and fulfillment that comes from productive employment or entrepreneurship.

John Hood

Like it or not, this is a fact. Before the middle of the 20th century, colleges and universities were elite institutions, experienced by only a tiny share of the population and funded primarily by tuition and private gifts. Even then, most graduates weren’t just there to read Plato, study fine art, or master quadratic equations for their own sake. They were being prepared for leadership roles in law, medicine, religion, commerce or civic affairs.

The GI Bill of Rights — and the contemporaneous expansion of state universities in access and funding — greatly expanded the scope of higher education. Now, more than a third of Americans have four-year degrees and nearly half possess at least an associate degree or post-secondary credential.

I write often about the productivity of higher education, and make no apologies for focusing primarily on the financial costs and benefits. That’s what concerns most prospective students and their families. But my own concerns are broader than that.
I do believe in the intrinsic worth of expanding one’s mind — of pursuing the true, the beautiful and the good. I think all university students should, for example, study a core curriculum in the liberal arts before turning to professional preparation. I also believe state institutions such as the University of North Carolina should continue to fulfill one of their original functions: cultivating leaders.

In the past, only a small and unrepresentative elite could aspire to leadership roles. Thank goodness that’s no longer the case. Still, most of those who lead businesses, governments, nonprofits, churches, and other organizations are college or university graduates. Quite apart from teaching specific disciplines or professional skills, campuses should prepare their graduates for leadership roles in their communities.

That’s one reason the UNC system is implementing a new requirement that graduates complete courses that, among other elements, study six key documents: the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the Federalist Papers, the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Of course, all voters ought to be taught the fundamentals of American government. That’s why we have civics requirements in high school, though one might argue that North Carolina should do more to improve the design and instruction of those courses. The justification for doing more at the university level, however, is that future leaders — by which I mean not just future politicians, activists, and public administrators but the broader swath of community leaders who participate in and shape the public conversation — need a deeper dive into these foundational texts.

Similarly, the new School of Civic Life and Leadership (SCiLL) at UNC-Chapel Hill will offer students the opportunity to develop the virtues and skills they need to practice prudent, effective leadership. Its new interdisciplinary minor will “bring people together to investigate deeply human questions about liberty, justice and equality,” says Jed Atkins, the school’s newly appointed dean, yielding “thoughtful citizens who think reflectively about our political life.”

The kind of citizens, in other words, who can lead North Carolina to a brighter future. “At a time of increasing polarization and declining public trust in our institutions,” Atkins says, “the development of SCiLL represents a remarkable opportunity for America’s first public university to continue to lead our country in preparing ‘a rising generation’ for lives of thoughtful civic engagement required for a flourishing democracy.”

In an article discussing SCiLL and comparable initiatives on other campuses, American Enterprise Institute scholars Beth Akers and Joe Pitts argued that in “a nation starved of formative institutions, universities are uniquely positioned to repair our civic fabric — if only they take their responsibilities to our country seriously.”

Good for UNC — and for all of us.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member.